Workshop 2: Energy In the Home
Reading time: 8 mins
We began our exploration into how Sholver and Westwood communities can improve their neighbourhoods and tackle climate change in the place where we tend to start most journeys – at home…
The workshop was split into two sessions and we worked in smaller rotating groups. The session with URBED facilitators Kat and Lorenza was a bit of a diagnosis or a health check to find out how energy efficient participants’ homes might already be, but also importantly to share their experiences in terms of comfort, health and cost of energy bills.
In the energy house session with Aneaka from Carbon Coop, the group dove straight into learning about insulation, ventilation and how we might be able to move from gas to electrically powered heating.
Aneaka started her session with the 1 million dollar prize question. She asked us: ‘So, if we want to save carbon and live in healthy, pleasant homes, what shall we do?’
And here are the solution the groups came up with:
Turn the lights off or boil the kettle with less water – But more often than not we find that the most of domestic energy is used for heating.
Get a fancy electric heating system! In order to emit less carbon we need to replace gas with a renewable source of energy and that means we need to go electric (remember, gas is a fossil fuel, but we can produce electricity with renewables, like wind and solar energy).
– But, this would mean we would need to generate more renewable energy than is technically possible! Also, electricity is more expensive than gas, if we don’t reduce the amount of energy we use our bills would go up!
Turn the heating off? – But that’s bad for our wellbeing, comfort and happiness and also as it turns out for our houses.
So what? We finally got it:
Put a jumper on your house! We need to stop the heat from escaping our homes by insulating it and closing all the draughty gaps! This is what is called a ‘fabric first’ approach to energy efficiency in buildings, it addresses the actual fabric of the house first, so the walls, the roof, windows and floor. Then when we have reduced heat loss, we can look at installing electric heating like for example heat pumps and we won’t need to heat much to keep the home at a cozy temperature.
In 2020 households emitted a fifth of all carbon emissions in the UK (UK Govt. pg 10). Most of these emissions are caused by gas central heating.
After this great insight, we got stuck in with the details of ‘how to’ with the help of our energy house model and thermal imaging cameras to actually see where most heat escapes (nope, not the windows like I thought, but actually the walls! Makes sense though, doesn’t it? Most of the surfaces in a house are walls.)
Participants looked at different types of insulation and discussed what simple measures might be that they can start with right away.
HOT TIP OF THE DAY: Lots of heat escapes through your chimney, so if you don’t use the fire, just fill a big plastic bag with lots of small plastic bags and shove it up the flue. (Remember to take the bag out before you light a fire!)
We were surprised to learn that heat behaves like water, so if you have ever tried to keep water in a bucket with even just the tiniest hole in it, you understand how important it is not to leave any gaps in the insulation or in the places where insulated surfaces meet. It has to be fully sealed. This sparked a discussion in both groups about the importance of quality and trustworthy builders with specialised skill sets.
“Don’t hire a cowboy builder.”
Both groups emphasized that using local builders would be both important in terms of accountability and to create more local jobs. But at the moment becoming accredited to do government funded energy efficiency work is expensive and good training is also needed. For people who rent either with a private landlord or a social housing company, an additional question arises on how they can influence the choice of builder for the work done in their home. There are definitely some important recommendations developing in that area in both the Sholver and Westwood groups.
“Ventilation is intentional. Draughts – you don’t want that!”
For some people, the idea of sealing up their home (we even used the word airtightness), can be scary. It was important to talk about ‘how the house and we can breathe’. We watched a great little film about ventilation. Have a look here.
And we discussed electric heating options, in particular ground and air source heat pumps and the benefits of producing your own energy via solar on the roof. But remember: Fabric has to come first.
“Everything is insulated in my house, except for the floor. So everything is really warm, except for downstairs, which is like a cold room!”
Meanwhile across the room people were crouching (at a safe distance) around our big neighbourhood map, adding their individual homes with little flags. The map is starting to be really well populated! The group started the conversation by talking about the different types of housing they live in and which time they were built, but also of course, if people rent or own their home. These are all important factors when dealing with the energy efficiency of a house. Generally new-builds (at least built in the last 20 years) tend to be built to a higher energy performance standard, meaning they are more energy efficient. Old Victorian (or Edwardian) homes were heated by wood or coal fires with a fireplace in nearly every room, so they were originally built to be draughty.
Westwood is a neighbourhood right in the heart of Oldham, can be seen in historical maps dating back to the industrial revolution, originally home to a number of mills and it is mainly composed of Victorian terraces, giving the area its particular character. There are only a few pockets of newer housing, delivered over the last twenty years or so by the council or housing associations.
Sholver meanwhile is a residential area to the north outskirts of Oldham, although historically dates back to quite ancient origins and was a hamlet independent to Oldham, its most recent, more modern development and housing stock make- up dates back to more recent times. Top Sholver is mostly composed of council/housing association homes built in the 1960s with Bottom Sholver instead made up of mainly semi-detached housing built even more recently (1990s onwards).
As a next step Kat and Lorenza invited participants to explore the EPC ratings of their own home. EPC is an Energy Performance Certificate that measures the energy performance of any property on a scale of A-G and is available for all homes and properties. You can find out about homes EPC rating here.
The tool is not perfect because it is a simplified version of looking at general features of each house/buildings and for example does not take into consideration how a particular household uses the building – for example one household may require warmer room temperature because of their needs, while another household in the next door house (identical in its layout and built) may not mind putting more clothes on and keep the heating off for more hours. But it can be a good start for you to establish how far you have to go to achieve the comfort and hopefully lower bills that come with a C and above.
‘My house is a B and yours a D – why?’
It was fascinating for participants to see the differences in ratings between neighbouring properties of the same typology. This can sometimes simply be due to physical circumstance (a mid terrace will always be warmer than an end terrace), but in many cases it is down to tenure. In Sholver we found identical houses, where the homeowner had done improvements over decades achieving a higher rating than the neighbouring property which was socially rented. The issues people encounter are different. As homeowners we have more control over the type of measures we can implement, but we have to be able to afford them. And it can feel overwhelming to decide where and how to even start. People who rent have much less control over how, when or even if their home might be improved.
In the final part of the session Kat and Lorenza invited participants to draw their own homes and describe them in terms of comfort, where issues might be around draughts and how people tend to heat.
“I just leave the heating on all the time in the winter.
Because it’s badly insulated and it is cold.”
Sholver is one of the highest estates in the UK and very exposed to the elements. The strong winds can be very cold and draughts are a real problem. Participants suspected that the original houses in the 60s were not fit for those kinds of conditions, but described them as ‘better built’ than some of the ones built in the 1990s by commercial builders. They described much of the housing stock to be quite ‘tired’ and in need of general maintenance which is of course a good time to implement energy efficiency improvements. For the participants in Sholver comfort was overwhelmingly the biggest need stated and many said in order to achieve this they would just have to keep the heating on in the winter for most of the time, there was consensus that this brings higher energy bills. Some of the participants felt able to meet these costs while others would welcome a reduction in energy bills, it was agreed together that energy efficient retrofitted homes that bring lower energy bills as well would be welcome by all. Participants also agreed that better communication and partnership between the residents and First Choice Homes (largest ‘keeper’ of the Sholver housing stock) would go a long way to facilitate better homes, more efficient and higher quality living, in Sholver.
“Everyone should at least have a C!”
Generally speaking though the housing stock in Sholver, as it has been built more recently, has a better average of EPC ratings than Westwood. Some participants in Westwood described how in the older terrace houses that often only have an F or G rating, they tend to just heat certain rooms in the house and gather there. A big problem identified was trying to dry clothing in the winter and the damp and mold problems that arise. The agreement in the group was that improving the energy efficiency in Westwood’s homes would immensely raise quality of life. Unlike Sholver where most people who rent live in social housing, Westwood has a high percentage of private rented accommodation. With a lack of regulation but also support, private landlords tend to do the least home improvements including energy efficiency measures. Westwood participants described how traditionally people in their community who over time have moved to other parts of Oldham, kept their home to rent it out. Their continuing emotional attachment to the community and the place could well be a good incentive to create a sort of landlord alliance or mutual support system to bring their properties up to an EPC rating that improves their tenants quality of life and lowers carbon emissions.
Another solution proposed in Westwood was to train community EPC assessors (paid!) in order to make sure the assessors have a community interest and a more complete picture can be formed of the work needed to be done going forward.
The women’s group meanwhile came up with a ‘train the trainer’ programme in DIY energy efficiency measures and ventilation for women. This could build on the general DIY training already done at the Coldhurst Women’s Association, because as one participant said: ‘We don’t want to wait for a builder or some male relative to fix the boiler!’
We will come back to these ideas in October. Our next workshops are about transport and green spaces as well as renewable and community energy. Follow us on social media to keep updated on the journey of our community workshop groups, where we’ll be sharing insights, key milestones and project updates over the coming weeks.
Below is a glossary of terms and a list of resources for further reading and information.
EPC ratings – An Energy Performance Certificate – or EPC – is a four-page document which sets out the energy efficiency of a property on a traffic light system of A to G – A being the most efficient. An EPC provides an indication of how much it will cost to heat and power a property.
Retrofit – making upgrades to an existing house (like new windows or insulation) which improves its energy efficiency.
Fabric first – Building ‘fabric’ is the walls, windows, floors and roof of your home. Fabric first means improving these parts of the home first through making them ‘airtight’ and insulated to save energy, then look at renewable sources of heat and power.
Airtightness – Eliminating all draughts in a building. This is sometimes measured in air changes per hour and extremely airtight houses will have very low levels of air changes. As with all houses, ventilation is necessary to make sure our houses stay healthy!
Heat pumps – These are devices used to warm and sometimes cool buildings by transferring heat energy from a cooler space to a warmer space using technology which works in the same principle like a fridge.
Solar PV – Technology that can turn solar energy from the sun into electricity.